It might have been a meaningless incident,
just one of those things that happen in
the city. But Reham says that those few
minutes changed her life.
It happened just as Reham was leaving work
at a programme called Dreams of the Girls,
in Qalyobeya, a suburb of Cairo. She teaches
girls who haven’t had the opportunity to go
to school how to read and write and learn
This project made me deal with a group of people I
had only heard of, girls whose only aim in life is to
eat, drink and sleep. And the feeling of being able
to help them is wonderful.
Reham was born in Suez, Egypt in 1982. She
is the eldest daughter among four children. Her
father owns a small transport company and her
mother is a public employee. Her family moved
to Cairo when she was ten.
Reham doesn’t remember any major problems
in her life; she always liked writing in her diary,
reading, drawing, and when she was a teenager
she enjoyed going to the movies and to the mall
with friends, listening to music and dancing. And
she always felt that, as a woman, she had the
same rights as men.
But in Egypt there are still relatively few
women in parliament, in the government,
and as judges.
True, Egyptian women don’t have access to certain
positions of power, but in daily life we are equal to men.
Her education was like that of many urban
middle class girls: a secular school, television,
learning the basics of Islam, though neither
her mother nor her father is particularly
religious. Reham would have liked to study
psychology or literature at college, but her
grades weren’t good enough. Of the available
options, she chose social work.
In the beginning, she was not very interested.
Little by little, though, she became enthralled
with the idea of helping other women. Shortly
after finishing her studies, she found the job in
Qalyobeya. She had already been there for three
years when the decisive incident happened.
That afternoon Reham left work with a friend.
It was hot that day, really hot.
It was just after three in the afternoon and
they were walking down a narrow street.
Reham was wearing jeans, a blouse and her
usual scarf. Suddenly, a hand grabbed her from
behind. Reham shouted and pushed it away, but
now two hands were moving over her body.
Reham kept shouting and the young man kept
grabbing at her, trying to drag her away. Reham
resisted until her screaming got the attention of
passers-by and the boy ran off. The whole thing
lasted a few seconds.
Reham fell to the ground, crying. The boy
stopped at the corner and looked at her as if
he were waiting for the right moment to do it
again. For days, Reham couldn’t go out for fear
of new attacks.
I couldn’t walk in the street, I felt really frightened.
It is very difficult to get figures about this
kind of casual sexual harassment: in big
cities, generally speaking, it is not reported,
not computed, and its perpetrators often go
unpunished. But in a recent survey of women
in Cairo published in the Arabic magazine
Nesa’a – Women – one third of the women said
that they are subject to it every day.
Sexual harassment knows no bounds; women
of all countries, all ages and social sectors have
experienced it. Harassment can consist of
touching, stalking, offensive words or flashing, and the degree of
violence and aggression vary. But one
thing is certain: for many women the city is a hostile
place where no one and nothing defends them.
Sometimes covert harassment bursts into the
open. In October 2006, at the end of Ramadan,
hundreds of men pursued and harassed girls in
one of Cairo’s main streets. Some of the girls were
wearing trousers and T-shirts; others were wearing
the long loose dress called abaya. The police
did not intervene. The press didn’t report the
incidents, and the story only came to light through
bloggers’ reports. Even then, some newspapers
claimed that the whole thing was a lie.
Urban environments appear to offer greater
anonymity to perpetrators of violence against women and girls
Reham had already experienced harassment
before that afternoon in Qalyobeya. And more
than once she had felt guilty.
Guilty of what?
Guilty of wearing tight clothes, of making people talk
about my body. I felt bad, I didn’t feel happy about it.
Is it so aggressive to wear trousers?
I am a little big, and I just wore whatever style
of clothes I liked. But some people weren’t convinced
that that was the way I wanted to dress; they just
thought that I was wearing this kind of clothes to
provoke them. Maybe there are people who think
wrong, who have problems, but I was making it
worse for them with wearing tight stuff.
That was not the only reason Reham had
begun, almost a year before, to think about
completely changing her image and starting to
wear an abaya, in addition to the scarf she had
worn for years.
In the beginning I thought of this dress as a new
style of clothes. I found it cool! It was like something
fashionable. But then my friends told me there is
commitment to religion related to it, so I didn’t put it on
immediately because I’m the kind of person who does
things only when I am convinced. I thought that if later
I changed back to tight blouses and trousers, it’d be a
sin, so I thought it was better to wait till I was ready.
The incident in Qalyobeya probably wouldn’t
have been decisive if Reham hadn’t had another
fright just a month before. One afternoon during
Ramadan, Reham and two others were in a tuktuk, a motorcycle taxi. The driver made a wrong
move and the vehicle turned over. Though she
suffered only a minor head injury, when the
tuk-tuk went out of control she thought she was
going to die. She was frightened: she was, she
thought, too far from God.
I discovered the most important thing: when God
loves someone, He gives them many warnings to
come back to Him. I could have died, I thought, and
I didn’t even use to do the simplest thing for God:
pray! As humans, as Muslims, we think about
God all the time, but the devil gets into your head,
so God gives you signs and warnings to tell you come
back to Me, read the Koran, pray. That’s because a
human being only starts thinking about God when
there is a stressful situation. For example, when you
are going to take a test, you pray. It’s just human
nature: humans forget, so God, for our sake, has to
put us in a situation which hurts us a little, so we
come back to Him!
Reham decided to pay more attention to her
religious duties. This also brought her closer to
her fiancé: Reham had become engaged a few
months earlier to a computer engineer. Her
fiancé, though deeply devoted to his religion,
didn’t demand that Reham be as observant
as he; but he was pleased when he saw the
changes in his future wife. So that day, when the
boy attacked her on the street, Reham thought
that she had been duly warned:
I still didn’t change my clothes after the first accident,
I didn’t learn from it, so God sent me another
warning. And then I decided to do it.
Her decision was a thorough one, and
Reham is sure that there is no turning back.
Since the end of 2006, Reham has worn her
scarf and abaya, which covers her entire body.
She says she will keep wearing them her whole life. She is not the
only one: many young
Muslim women feel safer wearing traditional
clothing. It is a way of putting up a double
barrier between potential aggressors and their
bodies: their clothing says, on the one hand,
that they don’t want to engage in any sort
of seduction and, on the other, that they are
protected by a community and a tradition.
And you feel very different now?
Well, I am the same person. Maybe I’m not as
nervous as I used to be, I think more before taking
action. Maybe now I consider more what is halal and haram – allowed and forbidden in Islam – but
I am really the same. Clothes won’t change you
from right to left, or vice versa. They didn’t decrease
my amount of freedom, my possibilities in work or
hanging out, my life is just the same. Nothing has
changed. I am 24, I am a normal person, I have my
way of thinking, and that’s still there now that I
wear this dress. People always thought I was a funny
person, and I still am.
Reham faced opposition from her mother,
who didn’t want her to make the change. She said
it made her look older, less pretty. Reham went
ahead anyway and discovered, she says, “that I
have a strong personality.” And now she feels
more comfortable, more relaxed. She says that
since she started wearing the abaya she is harassed
less on the street, and that her new religiousness
has brought her much closer to her fiancé.
But her opinion is still the same about
certain topics. She insists, for example, that in
Islam women are equal to men and says that
personally she wouldn’t be able to tolerate it
otherwise. Reham and her fiancé are getting
married later this year and she is happy about it.
She wants to have several children, take care of
the house and her husband, and keep working
to continue to make girls’ dreams come true.
And she is not sorry to have left certain things
behind. She no longer dances at parties, for
example, because her fiancé wouldn’t like it.
“It’s a matter of Eastern men’s traditions, and I
agree with that,” she says.
And still, these kinds of things don’t change me at
all. I’m always the same person. Or even a better
person, I think, now.